Garlic mustard plants can grow up to three feet tall and be identified by their heart-shaped leaves with scalloped edges and clusters of small, four-petal white flowers.
Springtime on the East Coast brings an abundance of garlic mustard plants. Whether on the side of the road, on the edge of a crop field, or in the hard-to-mow places of your backyard, European garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is an invasive species in need of control.
HOW THE SPECIES THRIVES
Garlic mustard is so abundant on this side of the Atlantic Ocean for a number of reasons: rapid growth, chemical aggression, few predators and easy dispersal.
To start, garlic mustard sprouts very early in spring, giving it a head start on many later-germinating native plants. Once established, garlic mustard’s roots and decaying leaves provide another advantage by secreting an allelopathic phytotoxin which harms seed germination and many types of mycorrhizal fungi, thereby reducing competition around itself.
Native browsers (like deer) and livestock (like cows) don’t do much to slow down garlic mustard’s spread because they generally avoid eating it, disliking the plant’s flavor. Deer are even suspected to be one of the primary dispersers of garlic mustard seeds which can stick to fur as the passing animal brushes against the plant.
Garlic mustard seeds are also able to hitch a ride on muddy boots or tires. As a result of its adaptive advantages, garlic mustard can crowd out native species, forming dense monocultures with little ecological value.
Due to human actions, garlic mustard has had the opportunity to grow uncontrollably on this continent; however, human actions can bring it back to some semblance of control. Why should humans be able to do more to control garlic mustard than other members of our ecosystem? Our advantage over garlic mustard is the very reason European colonizers of the 1800s brought it here in the first place: we think it tastes good. As its common name suggests, garlic mustard is a member of the Mustard family whose leaves taste garlicky. Deer and cows may not like it, but plenty of people do. As our awareness of Western agriculture’s impact on our soil, water, energy and space resources continues to grow, wild edibles like garlic mustard offer opportunities to:
- Eat locally-grown, nutritious, fresh food
- Promote biodiversity through our food choices rather than reduce it
- Get outside and actively, knowingly participate in the ecosystems that surround and permeate us.
So let’s re-learn how to cook with garlic mustard. As with many new foods, the best way to get acquainted is with a simple, delicious recipe that you can return to and modify over time. The recipe I started with is garlic mustard pesto. Maybe you already have a favorite pesto recipe, in which case, try substituting garlic mustard leaves for basil. Here is the recipe I use, originally found on Farm Steady, with my suggestions for how to make it vegan too:
- 2 cups garlic mustard leaves (You can get this quantity of leaves from about 20 garlic mustard stalks. Older leaves near the base of the plant are likely to be more bitter than younger ones)
- ¼ cup of walnuts
- 2 cloves of garlic (Growing your own garlic is easier than you might think, and you can learn more about it in this Penn State Extension article)
- ½ cup of olive oil
- ½ cup of grated pecorino cheese
(vegan options: ½ cup of vegan parmesan, or ½ cup nutritional yeast with 2 splashes of lemon juice and a dash of salt)
- Blend the garlic mustard, walnuts and garlic cloves in a food processor until finely minced.
- Continue blending and slowly add the olive oil.
- Add the cheese or cheese alternative to the food processor. Pulse until well combined.
- Taste and adjust to suit your preferences.
You did it! Now serve it up with some pasta, pita chips or whatever you like.
Homemade pesto made with garlic mustard
HARVESTING GARLIC MUSTARD
When harvesting garlic mustard leaves, take your time and be sure to pull up the roots of the plants that are harvested. My goal when harvesting garlic mustard is to prevent the plant from spreading and clearing out the area where I’m working. A good time of year to harvest garlic mustard is April through early May; because the plant has fully leafed out, those leaves are young and less likely to be bitter, and the plant has not reached peak seed production yet. Anything picked and pulled out of the ground during that time frame will not have the opportunity to reproduce itself again during the year. This way, you get the maximum impact on garlic mustard’s invasion for your work.
*IMPORTANT NOTES OF CAUTION*
First, only eat plants that you can confidently and accurately identify. If you aren’t sure, consult resources like plant ID apps (iNaturalist, Seek, etc.) or someone with identification skills you trust. There aren’t too many look-alikes for garlic mustard. While some plants have similar flowers and others have similar leaves, the garlic mustard’s specific combination of leaf and flower morphology make it very recognizable in this area.
Second, only harvest plants growing in conditions where they have not been exposed to high levels of pollution or chemicals like road treatments, herbicides and pesticides. While washing your foraged food helps to protect you, some harmful chemicals can be absorbed into the plant’s body and can’t be washed away. One way to assess risk is to talk to whoever stewards the land in question.
Third, only forage in places where you have permission to do so. This is another reason to talk to whoever stewards the land that you want to forage on. It’s best for everyone to be on the same page about where you are allowed to go, what you are allowed to take, and in which quantities.
Notes of caution aside, I do hope that you are feeling inspired to do some garlic mustard foraging of your own. Garlic mustard is easier to identify than many other plants, making it a good plant to start with if you are new to foraging. If you would like to learn more about garlic mustard and how to manage it, check out the link below. If you are interested in more invasive species recipes, stay tuned for upcoming “Recipes for a Better Ecosystem” articles.
Katie Toner, Conservation Easement Steward, Heritage Conservancy
Further reading: Penn State Extension’s Garlic Mustard Profile